If the University of West Florida wanted to put down roots in a place to foster community, innovation and connectedness, DeVilliers Square is a natural fit.
The building at 321 N. DeVilliers St. has been many things in its life cycle in the historic Belmont-DeVilliers neighborhood.
All of those things have been rooted in improving Pensacola by improving possibilities to her citizens’ connections.
In its newest incarnation — and as home to the UWF Innovation Institute and several small businesses — it is creating space where education is used to improve the economic realities of the 21st century in the Pensacola metro area.
While the UWF presence at DeVilliers Square is important, it is not the only thing going on in that building, which is owned by DeVilliers Square Partners.
The partnership includes Quint and Rishy Studer and architect Eddie Todd.
Todd has been working for nearly a decade to renovate the building; the Studers became investors in the project this year and have invested an additional $1.25 million in improvements.
UWF is on the third floor; the second floor is home to individual offices rented by small businesses.
The first floor is being developed and may include an expansion of UWF’s presence as well as other businesses.
One of those offices belongs to Robert Robino Productions, where Robin Reshard, a filmmaker and “professional interviewer” works. She and her husband, Lloyd Reshard, bring the Pensacola Network to the building monthly.
The interior of DeVilliers Square, which has been used for Pensacola State College student art exhibits.
At the networking event, she interviews local newsmakers and then moderates questions from the audience.
Of UWF’s presence in the building and the neighborhood, she says there are two trains of thought. One is that it is a great investment in the community.
“One is, what took so long? This place was always available when Eddie Todd, a black man, had it. The rent was always great here. It was safe when Eddie Todd had it, and it is safe now that Eddie Todd and Quint Studer own it together. I think we have to recognize that. When Eddie gives me ice and Quint gives me ice, it is still cold. Nobody’s ice is colder.”
“You have this perception, and the reality is UWF is way overdue to come here. They have sent students here to gain history of this place. It has always been a place for intelligence and creativity and knowledge. So what took so long? You have to have that conversation; you have to be real about it.”
Reshard says the collaborative spirit of problem-solving that the Innovation Institute aims to harness is a direct extension of the collaborative spirit that has inhabited the building since it was a furniture store.
“There are some amazing spirits in this building,” Reshard says. “I believe that this building, that the people who are here today, the people who were here yesteryear just forged a way for this neighborhood with blood, sweat and tears. I think they left some of that in here.”
In researching her documentary “Belmont DeVilliers: The Making of a Neighborhood,” Reshard said some people remembered the building with a grocery store attached, some recalled it as a dance hall called “Dreamland”.
Almost everyone remembered it as a furniture store.
According to Reshard’s research, the property was owned by John Sunday in 1898, the last of three corner parcels Sunday bought at the intersection of Belmont and DeVilliers.
Sunday died in 1925. The property was sold to Stella Charles, the widow of Sam Charles, one of Pensacola’s most prominent black businessmen. Stella Charles sold the building to Polly Morris, (of the Joe Morris Funeral Home family); Polly Morris sold it in 1940 to Escambia Furniture Co.
In 1949, Escambia Furniture sold the building to Rhodes Furniture. It closed under that banner and sat empty for a few years until Todd made the investment in bringing it back to life.
“This is my assumption, that this was a community gathering place,” Reshard says. “It is a huge building, so it has this amazing presence to it.”
One of the residents told Reshard she remembered coming to Girl Scout troop meetings at the store.
“When I thought about it, that made sense. Who brings girls to the Girls Scout meeting? Mom. Who shops for furniture? Mom. Is that not an amazing marketing plan. You’re doing this community service, and you’re doing good for yourself. You just have to believe that the people here endeared themselves to the community. That’s what I mean by the spirits.”
Reshard says when she moved into DeVilliers Square four years ago, she and Eddie Todd were talking about the details of the rental agreement. Reshard was considering a six-month lease in case the business failed.
“And he looked at me like,’What?’” she says. “I was tepid in my confidence in my success. It was a big deal to move out of a home office. He really encouraged me to sign the (longer) lease, but he also encouraged me that what I was doing had value beyond my table and for this whole community.
“And I bet you everybody in this building has that sort of Eddie story.”
As the Innovation Institute seeks to expand its footprint at DeVilliers Square, it has the strong history upon which to draw.
Its presence speaks to an important idea that Pensacola has sometimes struggled with as it sees growth.
The residential area near Cordova Mall that grew at the expense of downtown.
The county that draws people and business from the city limits.
The bedroom communities in Santa Rosa that draw people who live in one county and work in the other.
“Every single neighborhood is important, every one has value,” Reshard says. “The challenge is not out-value one neighborhood over another. Just because you talk about one neighborhood more, it doesn’t mean it has more value.”
“People are afraid to have the conversation because they think, you’re white, I’m going to blame you. I’m black, so I’m right.”
Denying the conversation denies the richness of all of our experiences.
“I think you need to have that conversation.”
Originally published Jan. 12, 2015.